Archive for the ‘Los Angeles’ Category

Maps to the Stars

March 2, 2015

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David Cronenberg has a reputation for making dark and disturbing films. His most recent work, Maps to the Stars, based on a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, will certainly not disappoint in that regard. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, it is the most unflattering depiction of Hollywood that I have seen since Robert Altman’s The Player. It suggests that the culture of Hollywood encourages narcissism and selfishness, as well as reckless and self-destructive behavior.

Maps to the Stars has several plot lines that eventually converge. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman just arrived in Los Angeles. She becomes romantically involved with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and writer. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a child actor who starred in a popular movie but then developed a substance abuse problem. He is now making a comeback by appearing in a sequel. His mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is a driving force behind his career. Havana (Julianne Moore) is a well-known movie actress. Her mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon) was also in movies. Havana is trying to get a role in a film that is a remake of a film her mother was in. She begins seeing Clarice’s ghost. She has therapy sessions with a self-help guru, Stafford (John Cusack), who happens to be Benjie’s father. Agatha gets a job working as a personal assistant for Havana. It is eventually revealed that Agatha is actually Benjie’s sister. Seven years earlier, she burned down the family’s house and almost killed Benjie during a psychotic episode. She was put in an asylum, but has now been released. Stafford has never forgiven her, and he is determined to keep her away from the rest of his family.

This film’s critique of Hollywood is intertwined with a grimly fatalistic story about incest, madness, and ghosts. (The supernatural elements may be due to the fact that the screenwriter is a disciple of Carlos Castaneda. I will have something to say about Castaneda in a future post.) These elements somewhat blunt its social criticism. However, the most striking thing about this movie is its lack of sympathy for its characters (although one feels a bit sorry for Agatha at times). Almost all of them come to bad ends. It doesn’t hold out any possibility that people can overcome their illusions or morally improve or escape their past. It ultimately feels suffocating.

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Kill the Messenger

November 16, 2014

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Kill the Messenger, directed by Michael Cuesta from a screenplay by Peter Landesman, tells the story of Gary Webb, the journalist who reported on contra drug-dealing in the US, and who was blacklisted by the news media for his efforts. The film follows Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he gradually uncovers the story and then writes about it for the San Jose Mercury News. The article causes a sensation, but then it immediately comes under attack from major news outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Webb then struggles to defend the article, as well as his reputation.

An interesting question here is: why was Webb’s article so controversial? I remember during the 1980’s hearing rumors that the contras were running drugs. A Senate committee eventually confirmed this as true. So why did Webb’s revelations upset so many people? I can only guess it was because Webb drew an explicit connection between the contras and the crack cocaine epidemic that swept South-Central Los Angeles in the 1980’s. I remember at the time, some journalists expressed fear of “black anger” as a result of Webb’s article.

This film suggests another possible motive: reporters at major newspapers were incensed that they had been scooped by a mid-size paper. Webb was, in that respect, a victim of the news media pecking order. What this movie also makes clear is the extraordinary vindictiveness of these people: even after the CIA admitted that Webb’s story was basically true, he was unable to get work at any newspaper.

Kill the Messenger is a tribute to a courageous reporter.

Boondoggle

December 2, 2013

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The Los Angeles Unified School District is prepared to spend $1 billion on iPads to be distributed to students and teachers. This is while the schools in Los Angeles are plagued by too large class sizes (40 or more students) and crumbling buildings. (A friend of mine who works as a high school teacher tells me that there is sometimes raw sewage in the hallways of the school where he works.) The iPads, which cost $647 each, will be obsolete in a few years, and in three years the district will have to spend $60 million to renew the licenses of the educational programs on the iPads. And the district apparently has no plans for what to do about iPads that get lost or broken.

This seems to me to be symptomatic of our society’s love of gimmickry when it comes to education. Standardized tests and charter schools are seen as magic solutions to our schools’ ills. Handing out iPads to students is the logical result of this shallow thinking.

Crash

April 10, 2013

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I recently learned through the Internet that some people are still seething over the fact that the 2006 Best Picture Oscar went to Crash instead of Brokeback Mountain. (Crash also won for Best Original Screenplay that year.) I missed Crash when it came out, but since I wasn’t all that impressed by Brokeback Mountain, I was curious to know why people though it was better than Crash, so I recently watched the latter film.

Crash is set in current day Los Angeles, and it tells the intertwined stories of a group of characters. These include: a black police detective, a Latina police detective, a racist white cop and his partner, a white district attorney and his wife, a black TV director and his wife, a Mexican locksmith and his daughter, an Iranian shopkeeper and his daughther, an Asian man involved in human trafficking, a black health care worker, and two black carjackers, one of whom spouts black nationalist rhetoric. The racial or ethnic identities of these characters are important, because this film is about the problem of racism.

This film is essentially a series of improbable coincidences that take place over a period of forty-eight hours. To take the most egregious example, the racist white cop and his partner pull over the black TV director and his wife as the latter are driving home. During the stop, the white racist cop sexually molests the wife. The next day, the racist white cop arrives at the scene of an accident. A woman is trapped in an overturned car. The racist white cop goes to rescue her, and – you guessed it – the woman turns out to be the same woman he molested the night before. What makes this scene offensive is that it seems to imply that being a racist and sexist pig doesn’t necessarily make you a bed person.

Coincidences do happen, but when a film presents us with one coincidence after another, it strains credulity. Furthermore, it’s lazy writing. Writers usually only resort to coincidences when they need to find some way to move the story along.

Another problem with this film is ham-handedness. Almost every conversation in it involves race in some way. When, for example, the Latina detective and the black detective have an argument after having had sex, she accuses him of having stereotyped ideas about Hispanics. In the world of Crash, people can’t even have a lovers’ quarrel without prejudice becoming the issue. Yes, racism is a problem in our society, but that doesn’t mean that people talk about it twenty-four hours a day.

There is also a problem of basic honesty. The black detective and the Latina detective are assigned to investigate an incident in which a white cop shot a black cop. The white cop claims that he acted in self-defense. Although it is unclear as to what exactly happened, the white district attorney pressures the black detective into filing a charge of murder against the white cop, because there is an election coming up and the district attorney wants to secure the black vote. Does anyone actually believe that this would happen in real life? District attorneys tend to be protective of the police, and (at least in L.A.) they don’t give a damn about the black vote. This part of the film is clearly inspired by an actual incident in which a white LAPD officer shot and killed a black LAPD officer. The white officer was acquitted of all wrong-doing.

Crash has a 75% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that most critics liked it. It appears that people overpraised Crash because it deals with the issue of racism, just as people overpraised Brokeback Mountain because it deals with the issue of homophobia. There’s an old saying among artists that “good intentions are not enough”. Someone need to explain this to critics.

Chinatown

March 23, 2013

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Chinatown, the 1974 film directed by Roman Polanski, from a screenplay by Robert Towne, tells the story of Jake Gttes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator who mostly handles marital infidelity cases. One day, Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office and hires Gittes to find out whether her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), who happens to be one of the most powerful men in the city of Los Angeles, has been cheating on her. Jake follows Mulwray and finds that he has been having an affair with another woman. When he tells Mrs. Mulwray, she gives the photos to the newspapers, causing a scandal. Then another woman shows up in his office and identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Shortly after this, Hollis Mulwray is found dead in a reservoir. Gittes becomes obsessed with trying to find out who used him and why.

Polanski and Towne were influenced by Raymond Chandler in their making of this film, although Gittes is a more cynical and less polished character than Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. And the film is actually bleaker than any of Chandler’s works. (Although, come to think of it, The Lady in the Lake is an extremely bleak novel.) The film benefits from Polanski’s intimate style of direction. He often has the camera follow people from room to room and from place to place. This has the effect of making one feel almost as if one were being physically drawn into the action. This contributes to the emotionally devastating effect of final scene.

The story of Chinatown was inspired by an actual series of events known as the California Water Wars. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the city of Los Angeles fought with local farmers for control of water in the Owens Valley. Los Angeles eventually managed to acquire the rights to all of the water in the valley, and Owens Lake was turned into a dust bowl. The character of Hollis Mulwray is loosely based on William Mulholland, a key player in the Water Wars. Mulholland, an Irishman, was a self-taught engineer. He was the superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He deliberately underestimated the amount of water available to the city in order to whip up public support for the idea of building an aqueduct from the Owens Valley. Mulholland also falsely told the residents of Owens Valley the city would only take water for domestic use and not for commercial use. Mulholland conspired with Mayor Frederick Eaton to enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the public.

Like many other American cities, Los Angeles was built through greed and corruption. Maybe this is a universal phenomenon. In Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams points out that many cities in Britain were built from the wealth generated by the slave trade. Much of the modern world has unsavory origins.

Manhunt

February 8, 2013

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The fortress that is the Los Angeles Police Department.

Police all over Southern California have been carrying out a manhunt for a former LAPD officer, Christopher Dorner, who has gone on a killing spree. As the New York Times tells it:

    The police across Southern California were on high alert in a dragnet that appeared to stun even a part of the country familiar with dramatic police hunts. Teams of police officers were dispatched overnight to guard uniformed officers and their families, tactical officers set up lines of defense outside the fortress that is the Los Angeles Police Department, and motorcycle officers were ordered to retreat to the safety of patrol cars.

“The fortress that is the Los Angeles Police Department”. Sounds impressive, no? And what happens when the denizens of this fortress swing into action? The Times immediately tells us:

    In Torrance, two women delivering newspapers were shot and wounded by police officers who mistook the vehicle they were driving for the one identified as belonging to the gunman.

So police officers opened fire on a vehicle without knowing who was inside it. I suppose it’s easy to mistake two women for one man. The LAPD expressed regret for the incident:

    In a press conference Thursday morning, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck confirmed that police shot innocent bystanders during the hunt for Dorner. He detailed the two victims’ gunshot wounds:

    “One has a minor gunshot wound and is in the process of being released. The second person is in stable condition, with two gunshot wounds,” said Chief Beck. “Tragically, we believe this was a case of mistaken identity by the officers.”

You think so, huh? And is it a tragedy because it was a case of mistaken identity, or is it a tragedy that they only believe this was a case of mistaken identity?

I suppose we shouldn’t be too outraged by this. After all, we have a president who draws up a weekly kill list and orders drone attacks without much concern for the legal or moral consequences. The LAPD are clearly in step with the twenty-first century.

Griffith Park

December 8, 2012

I don’t have much to say right now, so I decided to post some pictures I took during a recent walk through L.A.’s Griffith Park, my favorite park.

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A stature of Griffith J. Griffith, who donated the land that became the park. Griffith was a Welsh immigrant. (Only a Welshman would have the same first and last name.) Griffith served as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. Although Griffith was a generous philanthropist, he was not a good person. He once shot his wife, severely injuring her.

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A miniature railway line. I remember riding on this when I was a kid.

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The engineer (standing to the right) was a very nice person. He waited for me while I went to get a ticket. (It was the last ride of the day.) I wonder how you get a job like this.

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Many old Westerns and science fiction B-movies were shot in Griffith Park, which perhaps explains why I always get a feeling of deja vu when I come here.

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The Verdugo Mountains

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Which way did they go?

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Downtown Los Angeles at sunset.

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From the top of Mount Hollywood looking towards the Sand Fernando Vally.

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Starting back down from the top.

On the way down, I saw a coyote. (Alas, it was too dark to photograph him.) He and I looked at each other for about thiry seconds, then he trotted away.

I came out of the park a few miles from where I entered. I had a long walk home, but it was worth it.

Welcome to L.A.

October 22, 2012

Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!
― John Fante

I have returned from the Land of White People to the Real World. It was not without some trepidation that I made the decision to return here. Los Angeles is an ugly city in some ways, and it is laid out in a way that is not environmentally sustainable. Yet I must admit to having fond memories of this place. Since I have arrived here, I have come to the realization that I am a big city person. I like being around people, and I like having many choices as to things to do. In Eugene, I was going to the same hippy hang-out every week, which got old pretty quickly. (I must say, though, that Eugene has a nice art house movie theatre called the Bijou.)

I have noticed that there seems to be more theatres and live music venues than when I left. And Hollywood looks more prosperous than I’ve ever seen it look before. And there are new buildings here and there. It seems that L.A. has weathered the recession fairly well. The only sour note is that the L.A. Weekly, which I used to enjoy reading, is now a shrunken homunculus of its former self. This once eminent newsweekly is now edited by the right-wing crank, Jill Stewart. She used to write for the now defunct New Times L.A., and the Weekly seems to have adopted that paper’s strategy of emphasizing scandals, both real and imaginary. The cover story of the latest issue is a long article about sex scandals in the city of San Fernando (pop. 23,645). We all want to read about that, don’t we? I must admit that I miss the old Weekly. Harold Meyerson may have been a brown-noser to the Democrats, but he hired good reporters and interesting writers. What has happened to the Weekly may be symptomatic of what has been happening to alternative newspapers across the country, but one would have wished that the Weekly would have gone down fighting, instead of becoming an embarrassment.

It’s always nice to be in a city where people speak languages besides English. Spanish is, of course, ubiquitous, but what is not so well known is that L.A. has a large Russian-speaking community. Years ago, I used to take the Hollywood subway early in the morning to a job I had at the time. I swear, it was almost as though I were riding on the Moscow subway. L.A. also has substantial Chinese, Korean, Thai, Iranian, and Armenian communities.

Fuck you, Mayberry!

Whitey Bulger

June 25, 2011

James “Whitey” Bulger, who is alleged to have murdered at least 19 people, has been arrested. This is a redemptive act for the FBI, just as the finding of Bin Laden was a redemptive act for the CIA. Bulger spent the 1980’s working as an informant for the FBI, at the same time he was building his criminal empire in Boston. It was an FBI agent who tipped Bulger off that the police were about to arrest him in 1994. Ever since then the feds have been trying to wipe that particular egg off their face.

Police have searched all over the world for Bulger, but it appears that he has spent the last 14 years living in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, along with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Judging from what I’ve seen of the building in the TV reports, it is one of those drab, ticky-tacky apartment buildings that are all too common in the Los Angeles area. Comfortable enough to live in, but it is not something you would find particularly enjoyable or satisfying. (The place is called the “Princess Eugenia”, which fits in with L.A.’s long tradition of giving silly, pretentious names to drab apartment buildings.) Bulger didn’t own a car. According to their neighbors, Bulger and Greig would go shopping at the local 99 Cents Only Store. (I’m not making this up.) Police found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in Bulger’s apartment. No doubt this is all because Bulger was afraid that if he spent all this money, he would draw attention to himself. It was too risky for him to even put his money in a bank account. Bulger’s frugal way of life is probably the reason why it took the police so long to find him. No doubt the feds were looking for a big spender.

It appears that Bulger’s only luxury was that he happened to live within walking distance of the beach. He killed nineteen people for that? Bulger was born in poverty, which is presumably why he turned to a life of crime. Yet in the end, for all his machinations, his life was like that of a typical retiree living on a fixed income.

Bulger illustrates what I call the paradox of the criminal life. For example, a guy robs a million dollars from a bank, but then he can’t spend it without making the police suspicious. Al Capone’s fellow mobsters chided him for his opulent way of life, and they were right, for it was the IRS that finally brought him down.

James M. Cain touches upon this paradox in his novel, Double Indemnity. The protagonist has an affair with another man’s wife. He persuades her that they should kill her husband and make it look like an accident, so they can collect his life insurance. After they kill the guy however, they find they can’t have any contact with each other without arousing suspicion. The novel ends with the main character losing his mind.

I’m curious to know about the state of Whitey’s mind.

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

March 29, 2011

I feel obligated to note the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor. Although I was never a huge fan of Miss Taylor’s, she appeared in a number of important films, some of which have become classics. I seem to recall Taylor as a ubiquitous presence in the mid-twentieth century American culture that I grew up in, yet when I recently looked at her filmography, I was dismayed to realize that I’ve actually only seen a few of her films. It perhaps says something about Taylor that she seemed such a presence to me despite the fact that I rarely actually saw her in anything.

When I was in high school, I had a 300-pound English teacher who had a twisted sense of humor. One day he had the class watch Suddenly, Last Summer, which was the closest that Tennessee Williams ever came to writing a Grade B horror movie. I don’t remember much about Taylor’s performance, although I vividly recall the scene in which she flounders around in the surf wearing a skin-tight bathing suit. As you can imagine, this made quite an impression on the hormonal teenager I was in those days. (I must say though, what made a greater impression on me was Katherine Hepburn’s profoundly creepy performance as Violet Venable. The moment in which she suddenly turns to Montgomery Clift and exultantly semi-shouts “We saw the face of God!” almost made me fall out of my chair.)

Taylor was never a favorite with critics, though she managed to win two Academy Awards. One of them was for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof? I saw this film several years ago, and I must say that I was not that impressed by it. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay pads out Edward Albee’s play, merely making obvious what Albee wisely only hinted at. Again, I don’t remember much about Taylor’s performance, except that she wore a not quite convincing wig, and she yelled a lot. I did, however, like the performance of Richard Burton, who inexplicably failed to win an Oscar. His portrayal of a cynical, jaded college professor was cruelly accurate. (I can say that having known many cynical, jaded college professors in the course of my life.)

Interestingly, Taylor unintentionally had a profound impact on Los Angeles, one of the great cities of the world. (Snicker all you want, you New York snobs.) Taylor starred in the 1963 film, Cleopatra, which, although a huge box office success, cost so much money that 20th Century Fox could only fend off bankruptcy by selling off part of its backlot. (Taylor was paid $7 million – which went a lot farther in those days compared to now – and had 65 costume changes.) Century City was then built in its place. I once had a job working in an office building there. I remember the area as a striking example of bad urban design. It mainly consists of non-descript buildings surrounded by vast, empty lawns. The latter are criss-crossed by cement sidewalks that lead to bleak, charmless concrete plazas. Even in the middle of the day, when there are hundreds of office workers going to lunch, the place seems empty and impersonal. What’s more, there’s no place to park your car, except for a few expensive parking garages. (The company I worked for refused to reimburse me for parking.) I’m told that this place was deliberately meant to be a “city within a city”. The result is that it has no connection to the surrounding urban landscape. You’re in the second largest city in the U.S., yet you might as well be in an office park in Lower Bumfuck, New Jersey.

But I digress.

As too often happens with hugely successful celebrities, Taylor became something of a joke in her later years. Her messy personal life increasingly overshadowed her career. The fact that she put on weight in middle age (something that most people tend to do) was, for some reason, considered hilarious. I remember a Saturday Night Live sketch about an ‘interview” with Taylor (actually John Belushi in a wig and a dress). The “joke” was that Belushi/Taylor was ravenously stuffing his/her face the whole time. The “satire” in this sketch struck me as hypocritical, considering that Belushi was no stranger to carbohydrates himself. Our society seems take a perverse pleasure in seeing the inevitable decline of its once popular idols.